Rabbi Isaac Luria, the master kabbalist of 16th-century Safed, asked the following question: I understand how food sustains our bodies. But how can the soul, which is purely spiritual, be nourished from physical food? How is it possible that food enables the soul to remain bound to the body?
The scholar explained that all created matter in the universe — whether human, animal, plant, or mineral — exists only through the power of God’s Ten Sayings when He created the world.
So this power of Divine “speech” also exists in food. And that is the spiritual nourishment which the soul is able to absorb when the body eats.
When we recite a berachah before eating a piece of fruit, we acknowledge that God is the “Ruler of the universe, Who creates the fruit of trees.” This recognition awakens the fruit’s inner spiritual force, providing spiritual sustenance for the soul.
It is quite strange. The obligation to recite a blessing over a meal is explicitly stated in the Torah:
“When you eat and are satisfied, you must bless the Eternal your God for the good land that He has given you.” (Deut. 8:10)
But what about Torah? What is the source for reciting a berachah before studying Torah? According to Rabbi Ishmael, this blessing is derived a fortiori:
“If we recite a blessing for that which sustains life in this transient world, then certainly we should recite a blessing for that which enables eternal life in the World to Come.” (Berachot 48b)
Why should the blessing over Torah study be based on the blessing for food? Why is there no explicit source for this obligation? 1
Rav Kook explained that we are unable to fully grasp the greatness of the Torah. It is a Divine gift of immeasurable value. In this world, it is easier for us to appreciate material gifts. Only in the future world will we properly appreciate the Torah’s eternal worth.
On an abstract, intellectual level, we may recognize the Torah’s importance, but this is beyond our emotional faculties. Yet we can deepen our appreciation for the Torah by contemplating the connection that Rabbi Ishmael made between Torah and physical sustenance. If we are filled with sincere feelings of gratitude for that which keeps us alive in this temporal world, all the more we should be thankful for that which provides us with eternal life.
This contemplative exercise, Rav Kook noted, is one way we can actualize the teaching of Rabbi Isaac Luria on how to elevate physical pleasures. When we deepen our appreciation for all of God’s gifts, we gain spiritually from the inner essence of food. As Rabbi Luria wrote:
“Not by bread alone does man live, but by all that comes from God” (Deut. 8:3). This implies that also the soul lives by bread.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 221)
1In fact, according to other opinions, the obligation to recite a blessing before Torah study is derived from Deut. 32:3 (Berachot 21a).